Lepisto finds a niche in Phoenix

By Tanya Lyon

His father is a well-known Finnish defenseman who captained Jokerit of the SM-Liiga and he calls Hall of Famer Jari Kurri his godfather. To say that Sami Lepisto was destined to play hockey is a no brainer.

For the past two seasons, Lepisto has excelled at the AHL level, steadily producing points and earning a combined +53 playing for the Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals American League affiliate. Despite playing well in both seasons and earning 42 points in 70 games last year, the 25-year-old was unable to find a regular spot in the Washington line-up. He played in just seven NHL games in each of the past two seasons and last season in particular earned four points while averaging 19:36 minutes of ice time per game.

The Capitals sent the 6′, 190-pound blueliner, who was at the end of his entry-level contract, to the Phoenix Coyotes in exchange for a fifth round draft pick. Now instead of struggling to earn a spot in the line-up, the Espoo, Finland native is excelling in a new environment.

"He’s been a very pleasant surprise for us," said Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett. "He’s a player that I didn’t know a lot about when I came into the organization since he was with Washington, but he came in and played very well near the end of camp and caught my eye. He has great mobility, good stick in defending and moves the puck very well. He’s a very competitive guy. He’s not real big, but he’s really competitive so he’s been a big addition to our team."

"I was just happy to get a new fresh start in a new organization and I got it," said Lepisto. "I’ve just got to keep playing better but I’m happy to be here."

While Lepisto is focused on continuing to improve, the Coyotes have been pleased with his progress. He’s appeared in 16 games while averaging 18:33 of ice time per game. More importantly, with his smooth skating and his competitiveness, he’s beginning to make quite a name for himself among other opposing players.

"He’s playing really well," said Ducks forward and last year’s Calder Trophy finalist Bobby Ryan. "Lepisto is a guy who’s very poised with the puck. He makes smart decisions coming out of his zone. [The young guys] have earned their place in that line-up."

The first-year defenseman has also caught the eye of his own boyhood idol — Teemu Selanne — who happens to be a family friend.

"He didn’t get a good chance to play in Washington, so I’m very happy to see him [playing]," said Selanne. "He’s a very smart player like his dad was also, good skills and he moves well so I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t have a lot success in this league."

Selanne added, "He’s not the guy who’s going to steal the spotlight night after night but every team needs guys like him who are very solid and just do their job quietly."

And Lepisto has been solid. Thus far, the blueliner has been paired for the most part with young defenseman Keith Yandle and both players believe that their similar styles compliment each other on the ice.

"I think we’ve been playing pretty good together," said Lepisto. "We’re both puck-moving, and skating defensemen so I think we make a good pair but all the guys here are great players. So you’ve got to be able to play with anybody."

And that’s been particularly important for the Coyotes who just finished up a stretch of 10 games in 17 days and have recently been hit by the injury bug — particularly on their blueline. Leading defensive point scorer Ed Jovanovski is day-to-day with an injury and Zybnek Michalek is also out. The injuries have meant a change in the defensive pairs and have given a few other prospects a chance to crack the line-up.

"Obviously, there is a lot of experience missing with Jovanovski and Michalek out, but we just got to compete and bring energy that we lack with the experience," said Lepisto. "We’ve just got to battle harder."

In fact, the Coyotes started three first-year defensemen in a recent game against the Anaheim Ducks. The Coyotes narrowly lost that game despite producing three goals in the final period. Their coach liked the never quit attitude his team brought to the table adding that ‘always finding ways to win’ mentality is sometimes tough for young players to learn.

"That’s exactly what we talked about after the game," said Tippett. "There’s certain things that you liked about the game and certain things that you have to correct. We have young players and all these experiences are really good for them, and they recognize the situation — it’s a tough situation maybe, tough at the end of a stretch or with the injury situation — there’s still no excuse for not finding a way to win. Sometimes it’s a hard lesson to learn for young players, but nevertheless they have to learn them."

Despite the injuries plaguing the team early on and the number of rookies in their line-up, there’s a big difference between the Coyotes line-up this season and in past seasons, namely that the team is older and more experienced. Most of the rookies in their line-up are closer to 25 years old.

"They’ve really changed the make-up of their team," said Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle. "The personnel that they’ve added has more experience and they’ve put their kids in the American Hockey League. In the previous two seasons, all their young kids were in their line-up in the NHL now they have all their young kids honing their development in the American Hockey League so that’s a big difference. Obviously, they’re having success with the group that they put together. They work hard and they don’t give you much."

"Our start of the season was pretty good and I think that we surprised a lot of teams because they thought the stuff happenng behind the scenes would be messing with our heads," said Lepisto. "But I think we have a great mix of experience and youth here. I think we can do some really good things."

As for Lepisto, he’s still adjusting to going from idolizing fellow countrymen Selanne and Saku Koivu to playing against them.

"Of course it’s a great honor to play against guys like Teemu and Saku – great idols of mine growing up. So obviously a great honor, but I think every game in the NHL is nice but it’s a great spice when there’s a countryman on the ice."

And as for his godfather, Kurri, the NHL record-holder for most career goals by a Finn, asked for a special favor from his godson this year.

"Teemu’s in the running for breaking Kurri’s record – and actually I talked to [Kurri] about it. He said ‘don’t let him score when you play against him. Don’t let him score cause I don’t want him to beat my record. He was just joking though," said Lepisto laughing.